Die Linke: Principled opposition, not coalition poker

With Die Linke potentially emerging from last weekend’s elections as the biggest opposition party in parliament, big challenges lie ahead, argues Ben Lewis

Listening to the first electoral projections on the evening of September 22, it appeared as if the incumbent chancellor, Angela Merkel, had trumped all expectations and won an overall majority for the Christian Democrats, which would have made her only the second chancellor to do so since World War II.

Yet in the end she fell just short, missing out by a handful of seats. While in theory this means that all is still to play for in terms of a future German government, the European media’s relief at Merkel’s solid showing has been palpable, with fawning praise for the “world’s most powerful woman”, who is now set to overtake Margaret Thatcher as the longest serving female head of state in Europe.

Indeed, given that Merkel has shown herself time and time again to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ when it comes to imposing punishing austerity across Europe, it is no surprise that the ruling classes both in Germany and abroad have welcomed Sunday’s result. A telling sign of how austerity across the European Union is playing out is that, while in countries like Portugal, Greece and Spain up to 80% of the electorate would like to see the back of Frau Merkel, a significant section of the German population has rallied to her side. Following a rather dull election campaign which focussed more on Merkel herself as a guiding ‘mother’ figure than any real aspects of policy or controversy, the slight increase in voter turnout (71.5%) on the previous federal elections in 2009 saw her gain the most, winning 311 seats.

However, Merkel took a gamble by not calling for a second-preference vote for her government coalition partner, the FPD, intending this time to go it alone. The upshot is that the FDP was completely wiped out of parliament after losing over two million votes to the CDU and failing to clear the 5% hurdle needed to gain representation. Yet, with the FDP now dead, she needs a partner. Interestingly, in terms of the coalition talks that lie ahead, the FDP’s fate has done nothing to dispel the view that Merkel’s great prestige has always come at the cost of her ‘partners’ in government - first the social democrats (SPD) in 2009 and now the FDP in 2013. The mood music from some of the FDP’s leading members is that this ‘small party of big business’ will now tack even further to the right, particularly when it comes to ‘structural reforms’ across Europe.

And, talking of the right, one surprise on Sunday was the showing of the right-populist, Europhobic Alternative for Germany (AfD), which with 4.7% of the vote fell just short of winning seats. It stole its biggest chunk of votes from the FDP and, rather worryingly, 340,000 votes from Die Linke, the left party. While the AfD, which seems to mainly embody the politics of petty bourgeois anxiety, may amount to nothing more than a flash in the pan, the controversial question of Europe will stubbornly refuse to go away in the years ahead. Moreover, while the party may perhaps not fare so well in national and state elections, it will doubtless pull out all the stops at next year’s European elections, where such ugly anti-European sentiment may assume various forms in several EU member-states.

But what of Merkel? She is still without a majority and thus in the business of seeking a government partner - ‘coalition poker’, as it is called, has begun.

Fool me once …

For all the euphoria around Merkel’s “stunning success”, a closer look at the election results indicates that her outgoing government actually lost the election overall. Not only did her FDP former partner suffer the worst result in its history, if we add up the total seats won by the opposition parties, then the SPD (192), Die Linke (64) and the Greens (63) actually amount to 319 - that is to say, a very narrow majority.

If we also factor in the seven million ‘lost’ votes that result from the exigencies of Germany’s electoral system and its ‘anti-totalitarian’ (ie, undemocratic) 5% hurdle, then the picture is even more complicated.

While no socialist or democrat will shed a tear for the failure of the FDP or the AfD to win a seat, the fact is that, irrespective of whoever ‘wins’ and forms the next government, in many respects democracy will be the overall loser, for even a ‘grand coalition’ between Merkel and the SPD would not reflect a majority of the actual votes cast by those entitled to do so. A ‘grand coalition’ is what looks most likely though, not least because the leaders of the SPD and the Greens refuse to take seriously Die Linke’s ‘red-red-green’ gestures.

Such is the thoroughly compromised nature of today’s Greens that even Merkel has refused to rule out coalition talks with them. Yet after finishing fourth and losing a lot of support, the Greens have their own problems to deal with in the wake of leaders resigning and the subsequent jostling for position between the party’s left and right. Even Joschka Fischer, the former 68er turned Natophile, has made noises about returning to the fold, worried that the “leftwing trajectory” (sic) of the party has simply scared too many people away ... Where have we heard that before?

The SPD, it seems, is Merkel’s only choice. On Sunday it made some incremental gains, largely taking votes from the Greens and Die Linke. Nonetheless, it was actually SPD’s second-worst showing since World War II. The party that was once the envy of the international workers’ movement has been reduced to a hollow shell and stands essentially on the same ground as Merkel. The SPD is by no means a homogenous entity, but the right remains totally dominant.

That is not to say that even an essentially Blairite SPD will not find government with Merkel a rather difficult pill to swallow - not because of the parties’ different approaches regarding a European banking union and so on, but simply due to the demands of Realpolitik: the SPD’s worst post-World War II result, after all, came in 2009 after its last ‘grand coalition’ jolly with the CDU, memories of which have no doubt been revived by the downfall of the FDP last weekend. Fool me once …

Indeed, the regional party in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany’s most populous Land, has actually voted against a grand coalition. Leading social democrat Sigmar Gabriel, who on Monday received a phone call from Merkel about coalition talks, said that the SPD was not exactly queuing up after Merkel had just “ruined” the FDP. The SPD will meet this Friday to discuss the matter and Merkel has made it clear that she is happy to wait.

In reality, these noises from Gabriel and others are little more than hot air: a chance to show the media that the party is no easy ride and is attempting to strike a hard bargain. As one SPD activist from Nordrhein-Westfalen told me, “It’s good that the regional party has taken a stand, but it won’t affect anything”. So we should expect to see much by way of horse-trading, policy footsie and party overtures in the media. The SPD will probably go along with Merkel and her European agenda after being thrown the odd domestic ‘reform’ bone here and there, such as a national minimum wage and other minor modifications to the ‘Agenda 2010’ programme. Given the SPD’s relative weight in regional politics (and with it the second chamber), it is not in a bad bargaining position. But it knows that it has a lot to lose …

Government matters

Assuming, then, that we are in for another grand coalition, it appears that Die Linke will emerge as Germany’s biggest opposition party. While its share of the vote fell by just over 3%, and this in turn was down on its quite remarkable performance in 2009, the party will largely be pleased, particularly in light of its poor showing in German regional elections and polls over the recent period. Moreover, for a party that has been traditionally dominated by the well-rooted and formerly ruling ‘official communist’ Socialist Unity Party of the old German Democratic Republic, and has been unable to make a real breakthrough in the west, the election of 32 parliamentary representatives from each side of the east-west divide is of symbolic importance. Opposition presents opportunities.

There are, however, several signs from the leadership of Die Linke that these opportunities could be wasted. The leadership insists that the “door must be kept open” for coalition talks with the SPD and the Greens, which is an utterly hopeless perspective for a purportedly ‘anti-capitalist’ organisation. Even on the basis of a somewhat dubious left-reformist ‘keep out Merkel’ logic, this ‘strategy’ is obviously a nonsense: the SPD looks likely to form a government with Merkel and, if the Greens had fared slightly better on Sunday, then they may well have done so as well. So much for alternative policies.

For now it appears that this enthusiasm for forming capitalist governments will not have any ramifications nationally. Yet it could undermine Die Linke’s strong opposition role regionally, particularly with upcoming Land elections in eastern Germany, traditionally the stronghold of the party’s right wing.

In West German Hesse, for example, where there was also an election on September 22, Die Linke is a key player, given the choice between a CDU/FDP administration and an SPD/Green one. We could see the sad sight of a red-red-green government or even Die Linke ‘tolerating’ a red-green minority administration, as it did in 2009 - very little ‘opposition’ at all. Indeed, Janine Wissler of Marx 21,1 who has just been re-elected to the Hesse regional parliament for Die Linke, attracted quite a bit of media attention when arguing that she was in favour of talks about such a government in that state.

Providing left cover for regional cuts, where the party already has history, could prove disastrous for Die Linke’s support. One thing underlined by this election is that the German system can lead to the rapid rise and fall of smaller or oppositional parties. For example, it is less than two years ago that the Pirate Party was being hailed as the ‘next big thing’ in politics, but it is not represented now. In the wake of the accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan in 2011 the Greens appeared to be making great strides. There was even a time in the recent past when the FDP was polling around 15% …

All the more important, then, that Die Linke should present a consistent, principled and imaginative opposition to the whole system and gradually establish itself with a rooted and politically principled base (the fact that so many Die Linke votes were lost to the AfD, or even to the CDU, should serve as yet another warning here).

Die Linke needs to break with its policy of working alongside pro-capitalist forces on the basis of some utopian dream of real “social democracy”, as desired by those like the media-savvy Gregor Gysi. It is likely that this question is not going to go away in the coming period, with the ‘realo’ and the ‘fundi’ wings clashing over particularly vague formulations in the party’s programme on government regionally. It is all the more important, then, that the left in Die Linke foregrounds the question of government and opposition.


In this regard it is perhaps revealing that my article last week2 has come in for some criticism over its ‘sectarianism’ towards Die Linke. Members and supporters of Marx 21 have chided me for not seeing the ‘political gains’ that can be made from exposing the Greens and the SPD by stating something along the lines of ‘We will form a government with you if the conditions are right’.3

I do not at all deny the tactical advantage that can be gained by placing conditions on other workers’ parties (although I am less convinced about the utility of such an approach when it comes to the petty bourgeois Greens). What I am criticising is the very idea of participating in a capitalist government. Should any ‘anti-capitalist’ party worth its salt agree to do so - let alone limit its conditions to the introduction of a minimum wage (which a grand coalition might do anyway), opposition to German combat missions abroad (something that the right of the party, smelling power, is now looking to drop) and opposition to social cuts? Can there really be a ‘leftwing’ capitalist government’ as a step towards socialism? Many people might well think so, but we Marxists surely have a different approach.

One Marx 21 supporter even questioned my right to have a go at Die Linke while spending so much time researching and translating texts the old SPD when it was formally a Marxist party (and, contrary to what the comrade claims, far to the left of today’s Die Linke). Yet one of the healthier aspects of the German workers’ movement historically was precisely its instance on principled opposition: ie, its refusal to take responsibility for government until it was in a position to carry out its full minimum programme. This basic Marxist approach was also that of the Spartacus League of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (whose names adorn Die Linke’s party headquarters and its research institute respectively): “The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the Spartacus League’s views, aims and methods of struggle.”4

The ins and outs of ‘coalition poker’ can be safely left to the parties that are committed to various ways of tinkering with the status quo. Die Linke should not be sitting at the table, but instead mobilising principled opposition to the entire corrupt charade from top to bottom. The fact that it cannot clearly come out and do so as things stand is merely a reflection of the strategic shortcomings built into the very DNA of ‘broad workers’ party’ formations. All the more reason why, when forming political parties, we on the left need to be straight about our principles and strategy from the very outset.



1. I would like to thank supporters of Marx 21 for pointing out that it is not actually an affiliate of the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Tendency, as I stated in my last article - although members close to the British SWP are still involved in it.

2. ‘Rotten politics and rotten terms’, September 19.

3. Marx 21 does not appear to have come out strongly against government participation. In a recent article, Christine Buchholz argues that it is not the government constellation that will decide things, but social power relations, thereby dodging the issue. She mentions that some have spoken of a ‘red-red-green’ government, but does not address whether such a government would be desirable or not … (http://marx21.de/content/view/1986/32).

4. R Luxemburg, ‘What does the Spartacus League want?’: www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm - translation amended slightly.